Monday, February 20, 2012

Must See TV (Part I): Downton Abbey

A recent newspaper article noted that the majority of content streamed by Netflix are no longer movies but productions that originated on television. My own recent Netflix viewing experiences bear this out, with many of my new favorite programs resulting from my ability to sample shows on Netflix. First up: Downton Abbey. The second series is currently airing on PBS through February 19, though the review below is primarily for the first season which I watched on Netflix.

The international hit PBS show, Downton Abbey, was barely on my radar when I first encountered it on Netflix. Vaguely recalling  articles about it, I decided to check it out and was immediately hooked.

Essentially an update of the classic series Upstairs, Downstairs and set at the turn of the 20th century, this period drama portrays the intertwined lives of the fictional aristocratic Crawley family, headed by the Earl of Grantham and his rich American wife Cora (played by Elizabeth McGovern), and their downstairs staff. The show, which originally was produced and aired in the U.K., has been a huge success internationally and one of PBS’s biggest hits ever.

The period costumes and the insider’s view of the English class system at the turn of the 20th century from the view of both the privileged and those in service no doubt has played a big role in the show’s success. But it is the writing, characters and drama that have captivated a devoted and obsessed audience.

My favorite storyline includes the star-crossed romance between the eldest daughter Mary and her distant cousin Matthew, whose story kicks off the series when the original male heirs to the family fortune are lost on the Titanic, throwing the future of the estate into uncertainty.

The headstrong Mary at first resists her family’s suggestion that she pursue Matthew to ensure her financial security and social standing. Like any normal daughter, Mary resists the suggestion, viewing Matthew as an undeserving interloper who is beneath her and unworthy of her consideration. For his part, Matthew initially assumes Mary to be a spoiled snob. Over time, however, the two find themselves attracted to each other—the cold and steely Mary, in particular, must first come to terms with truly falling in love (perhaps for the first time), with a man her parents actually approve of when all  such romantic considerations were perviously driven by self-interest and mercenary factors. The affection and unrequited love between the two—filtered, of course, by classic British reserve—particularly roped me into the series. In classic cliffhanger fashion, their love affair was left unresolved at the end of season 1, which no doubt partly led to the announcement of the second series, which just concluded airing on PBS.

Numerous other stories, both large and small, play out through the series, set against the larger backdrop of a class system that was on the verge of extinction, though not just yet. The start of World War I in 1914, which closes the first series, was one of the first major sea changes that brought an end to the system—a system that continued to decline until around the start of the next world war.

To be sure, there is nothing especially groundbreaking or innovative in Downton Abbey—indeed, its creator and writer, Julian Fellowes, who also wrote the Oscar winning screenplay for Gosford Park, acknowledges that the show reflects a personal nostalgia for this earlier time. Some have dismissed the show as nothing more than melodrama or, worse, soap opera—personally, I have felt this to be especially the case in the second series, which seems to have really amped up the melodrama. Indeed, in its second season, the show has felt downright Dickensian in its twists and turns (a tone which is not entirely inappropriate for this show). But my investment in the characters and storylines of the first series easily carried me through the second, which ended strongly.

A third season is now in the works, with Shirley MacLaine recently announced as a new addition, as Elizabeth McGovern's character's mother. She is a brilliant compliment to Dame Maggie Smith, who has stolen nearly all the scenes she has appeared in, as the Earl of Grantham's mother, Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham.

Melodrama or not, Downton Abbey shows that when done with skill and high production values—matched by solid storytelling and engaging characters played by strong actors—audiences will respond.

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